By Gabriel Stargardter and Gustavo Palencia
TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - When 9-year-old Genesis stepped off a plane in Honduras after being deported from the United States, she was excited at the thought of seeing her cousins. For her mother, Victoria Cordova, the homecoming was terrifying: she fears being killed if she does not repay money she owes the wife of a local gang leader.
Cordova had used the money to pay a smuggler to get her and Genesis to the United States. But after a grueling 2,500 km (1,600 mile) overland trek, the pair were caught entering Texas in June, sent to a detention center and then flown home this week as part of a U.S. effort to speed up the expulsion of thousands of illegal migrants, many of them children.
Mother and daughter, who had fled rampant violence in the Honduran city of Tegucigalpa, returned to a situation even more precarious than the one they had left. Cordova, who is unemployed, does not know how she is going to repay the loan.
Their story is emblematic of a wider problem that has been little reported: threats, debts and despair often lie in wait for migrants deported back to violence-racked Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
Deported migrants often become targets of the gangs they tried to escape, and their jobs prospects are grim. They face stigmatization upon return, being lumped in with people deported for more serious offenses than crossing the border illegally.
Genesis, who gave up her friends, her dog and her toys to travel 25 days north with her mother, sometimes sleeping in mud in pouring rain, was only too glad to be sent back.
"I'm happy to be going because I'm going to see my cousins," Genesis told Reuters after getting off a U.S. charter flight on Monday with 20 other children and 17 women in San Pedro Sula, the city with the highest murder rate in the world.
But the innocent comment belied the reality awaiting her mother in a country where gangs control the crushingly poor neighborhoods many migrants seek to escape.
A $6,000 DEBT
Thirty-year-old Cordova and Genesis arrived home at close to midnight. Within hours, she was visited by the wife of an imprisoned local gang lord, who reminded her that she still owed her $6,000.
"She told me to pay as soon as possible because she could get into problems," Cordova said, trying to hide the tears from Genesis as she related their story, surrounded by her large family in a dilapidated corrugated iron home in Tegucigalpa.
"If he (the gang leader) realizes, he could get annoyed with her or with me, and you know what that means - we'll lose our lives."
She must find a job to pay off her debt, worth 21 months of work. Until she lost her job at a local bakery four months before leaving, Cordova earned 6,000 lempiras ($286) a month.
Reuters could not independently verify her account of the loan, but if true, it is a typical story told by returnees.
Lauren Heidbrink, an anthropologist at National Louis University in Chicago, said she had studied Guatemalan families who took out loans on their homes to pay smugglers, putting them $7,500-$10,000 in debt at interest rates as high as 15 percent.
Julio Pineda, a 21-year-old Honduran who was deported from Mexico this spring after failing to reach the United States, said unpaid debts were not tolerated for long.
"They'll give you two or three months, and if you don't find the money, you'll go down," he said as he waited for his brother-in-law to return on a U.S. deportation flight.
Cordova said she spoke to her Honduran coyote, or smuggler, and asked if he would give her the money back. He said no, but that he would be willing to take her north again.
"I said to him, 'No, why would I do that? So I can be sent back again?'," Cordova said.
Greeting Cordova and Genesis as they landed, Honduran First Lady Ana Garcia de Hernandez acknowledged the security situation in Honduras was still bad. "We've made efforts to improve it, but it's not been enough."
Home for Cordova and her daughter is the "21st of February", a notoriously violent colonia, which clings to the hills around the Honduran capital.
Many of the young Hondurans flocking to the border are fleeing gangs like "Calle 18" and "Mara Salvatrucha" formed in the 1980s in the United States by Central American migrants.
"Some of the teenagers who were being recruited by gangs and narcotraficantes are now back in the crosshairs of those people who were wanting to recruit them and maybe now they'll get penalized for having tried to leave," said Luis Zayas, dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin.
Later blossoming into international franchises as members were deported back to their native countries, the "maras" run drugs, extort and are constantly in search of new recruits in three of the most violent countries in the western hemisphere.
More than 57,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America have been apprehended at the U.S. border since last October.
On the car journey from the airport to their home on Monday, Cordova spoke of her fears for the future. Genesis was asleep on her mother's shoulder, wearing the same pink trainers without laces she had on during their nearly month-long trip to the U.S. border.
Children not much older than Genesis are at risk from the gangs. Cordova said her nephew Henry was 12 when the maras tried to recruit him, ordering him to kill someone.
He refused, had to go into hiding, and could not even visit his mother for fear she would be killed. Cordova said he became a thief to survive and is now in the relative safety of prison.
Cordova's neighbor, Javier Gonzalez, 23, was less fortunate. After being forced by gangs to sell drugs in a rival "colonia" or neighborhood, the "Calle 18" gang there found and killed him.
Exhausted and stressed, Cordova stopped the car on the three-hour journey home from the airport on Monday so that she could vomit on the side of the road. She spent the night lying awake with stomach cramps in the single bed she shares with Genesis.
Five adults and three children live in her house, a series of one-room shacks built around a rubble-strewn concrete square. Her painter father, 63, is the only one with a stable income.
Before she left, Genesis spent most of her free time playing hide-and-seek with her 11-year-old cousin Wenzel and their dog Lassie, who they like to dress up in girl's clothes.
Genesis says she wants to be a teacher, and often uses one of her few prized possessions, a fake computer tablet, to give mock lessons to younger local girls.
The experience of being deported can have a lasting effect on young people, experts say.
"Psychologically, the children who are returned are often devastated because they left in hope of a better future and they returned to a stark reality that was often less than ideal," said Van Tran, a sociologist at Columbia University, who spent seven years in three different refugee camps in Thailand.
The journey north has left negative memories for Genesis, who laughed nervously when asked about the trip that had forced her to sleep outside in the rain by the U.S. border. "It was cold, and I didn't have (other) clothes in the mud," she said.
Yet at the most dramatic moment, the little girl said she was brave. When the man smuggling them and more than a dozen others in an inflatable boat across the Rio Grande spotted a U.S. patrol vessel, he jumped overboard, causing a mass panic that nearly capsized the boat.
"I wasn't crying," Genesis said, proudly.
Teasing gently, her mother corrected her: "Yes you were."
Genesis will soon hit puberty, and Cordova frets she could begin taking drugs or become a gangster's girlfriend.
"The truth is I don't see a future for her," she said. "I've been deported, and that was the only hope I had, to educate my daughter and help my father. Now my future is just to find a job and pay off my debt. Our dreams are gone."
(Additional reporting by Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein, editing by Dave Graham and Ross Colvin)